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Long IslandEducation

Push is on for flexibility in required class time, school calendars

The proposal by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia would give districts more leeway for weather and the increased number of religious holidays.

Two students in the Huntington school district trudge

Two students in the Huntington school district trudge through the snow to board their bus on Route 25A in Huntington on Feb. 14, 2007. The district opened on a two-hour delay because of the weather. Photo Credit: Newsday / Kathy Kmonicek

Education policymakers in New York and other states are pushing for major shifts in the way class time is measured each year, while adding flexibility to school calendars relatively unchanged since the 19th century.

On Long Island, one motivation for change is that many local districts find their schedules increasingly crowded with religious holidays and other pressing demands. A growing number of schools are giving students time off for Lunar New Year, the Hindu festival of Diwali and the Muslim observances of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

In March, the state Board of Regents is scheduled to vote on a regulatory change allowing schools to operate not for a required minimum amount of time each day, but rather for a required number of hours spread over an entire academic year. That way, schools could get credit for hours of instruction provided on days when they had to shut down early because of snow or high winds.

Regional school leaders applauded the plan rolled out Dec. 7 by Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and her staff in the state Education Department.

“Kudos to State Education for responding to our concerns,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “This is something that superintendents have pushed for because our calendars are becoming more crowded.”

New York law currently restricts schools’ annual schedules to a period of a little less than nine months. That period starts no earlier than Sept. 1 and ends on the final day of scoring state Regents exams in late June. Costs of any classes held outside the specified period cannot be funded with state financial aid.

Under the same law, schools must provide at least 180 days of instruction or the equivalent during the permitted period. Elementary classes must run at least five hours a day, and secondary classes at least five-and-a-half hours a day in order to qualify for state assistance.

Elia’s proposal would put this accounting system on an hourly, rather than a daily, basis.

For example, to meet the state’s requirement for half-day kindergarten classes, schools would have to provide at least 450 instructional hours over 180 days. For full-day kindergarten and grades one through six, a minimum 900 hours over that number of days would be required, while in grades seven through 12, 990 hours would be necessary.

Elia said the plan would free up more time for teacher training, parent conferences and student recess without diminishing academics.

“We’re looking to provide districts with more flexibility in establishing their school calendars, while maintaining the current amount of instructional time,” the commissioner said in a statement emailed to Newsday.

Some other states already have moved in the direction of granting districts greater latitude.

Iowa, for example, gives districts the choice of setting calendars either at 180 instructional days or 1,080 hours annually. Texas sets an annual minimum of 75,600 minutes of instruction.

Supporters of New York’s plan said it should work equally well in the suburbs, where religious diversity is a major factor, and in upstate communities, where blizzards result in frequent school shutdowns.

“We think this is good for everybody,” said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties on the 17-member Regents board.

Elia, on top of her proposed change in time accountability, has floated the idea of allowing schools to operate outside the constraints of a September-to-June schedule. This could encourage more districts to start classes a bit earlier than usual — for instance, during the last week of August.

Any such change would be politically controversial and would require approval by the governor and State Legislature. Elia said she plans to propose specific legislation early next year.

Tourism and camping operators already have raised concerns about the potential impact on summer business. Some teachers have expressed reservations about the prospect of working during August in classrooms without air conditioning.

“There seemed to be an awful lot of comments awfully quickly,” said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teacher union, referring to recent Facebook entries. “So teachers are definitely paying attention to this.”

State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he favors greater scheduling flexibility for schools, but remains mindful of concerns raised by the private sector.

“The tourist industry has to be considered as well,” Marcellino said, noting that it is a huge economic engine on Long Island.

Time in the classroom

Most states, New York included, require between 175 and 185 days of annual instruction in public schools. New York’s minimum requirement is 180 days.

The number of instructional hours within the school year’s time periods have a wide range.

This list shows the minimum number of instructional hours per school year in a sampling of states.

Texas — 1,260

Maryland — 1,170

Michigan — 1,098

California — 1,080

Indiana — 1,080

North Carolina — 1,025

Washington — 1,000

Georgia — 990

Massachusetts — 990

New York — 990

Pennsylvania — 990

Virginia — 990

Connecticut — 900

Florida — 900

Illinois — 900

Arizona — 720

New Jersey — 720

Source: New York State Education Department

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